Re-flipped: not simple

I’m digging into the Flipped archives again. This one came out just as Natsume Ono’s work was starting to be licensed in English. It focuses primarily on her first licensed work, which generated some mixed reaction, though I loved it.

I’ve given up on prognostication. Experience has demonstrated that I’m usually too optimistic, and looking back at my predictions makes me realize that they’re more in the line of affirmations than realistic expectations. I will indulge in one, though: by the end of 2010, a lot more people will be aware of the work of Natsume Ono than they were when the year began.

To be honest, I’d never heard her name at the beginning of 2009. My first glimpse of her work came through a random copy of Kodansha’s Morning 2, which is serializing Ono’s Coppers. I remember thinking that those pages didn’t look much like anything else in the magazine. It took me a while to connect the creator of Coppers with my next encounter with Ono.

That happened at Viz Media’s online IKKI anthology, which serializes chapters of Ono’s House of Five Leaves. It’s one of those series that on first glance leave you not quite sure what you just read, though in a very pleasant way. The opening chapters leave the doors of possibility wide open, and subsequent installments don’t so much shut them as fill in the details of those possibilities.

It’s about an out-of-work samurai, Akitsu, who becomes entangled with a gang of kidnappers. Akitsu doesn’t resemble the standard manga samurai in physicality or disposition, lithe and diffident instead of sturdy and aggressive. It’s easy to see why he’s unemployed, but it’s enticingly unclear why gangster Yaichi lures Akitsu into his circle. It could be that Akitsu is easy to manipulate and the last person you’d expect of ulterior motives, or it could be simple, unexpected fondness. Yaichi might merely like to have Akitsu around.

Ono seems entirely comfortable with leaving readers to guess where things might be headed in terms of event and even intent, though I always have the sense that things are moving in interesting directions. Her work seems both confident and restrained. It also seems just slightly askew of what one might expect when one considers demographics like seinen (comics for adult men), josei (for adult women) or yaoi (male-male romance, which Ono has created under the name “Basso”). So it makes sense that the magazines that have featured her work – Morning 2, Shogakukan’s IKKI, the late Penguin Shobou’s Comic SEED! – seem less designed to cater to a specific demographic than to simply publish an interesting variety of comics by accomplished creators.

The first Ono title to see print in translation, not simple from Viz, arrives this week, and the publisher has posted the first chapter online. Comics creator, editor and critic Shaenon K. Garrity has described the book as “scary good,” and I’m in complete agreement. I think it compares favorably to one of the most acclaimed books of 2009, David Small’s Stitches: A Memoir (W.W. Norton). Like Small’s autobiography, not simple explores the hideous consequences of parental cowardice and cruelty, and, like Stitches, it’s constructed and paced with admirable precision and craft. As was the case in Stitches, I’m reluctant to describe the plot in too much detail, as a great deal of pleasure is derived in the timing with which Ono reveals the underlying facts of her characters’ lives.

The book follows a young Australian man named Ian, barely more than a boy, really, as he searches for his older sister, the only bright point in his grim experience with family life. Along the way, he meets a writer, Jim, who’s taken with Ian’s story both for its inherent pathos and for its narrative possibilities – he wants to know how Ian’s story comes out at least partly because he wants to tell it. Ian’s life and Jim’s novel intersect and overlap, and the story-within-a-story elements aren’t always entirely successful, but Jim’s mixture of sympathy and self-interest give Ian’s tragedies a needed edge and the possibility of at least a little remove on the part of the reader. One of the recurring criticisms I saw for Stitches was that it was just so depressing, a quality compounded by the fact that the events it portrayed actually happened. In not simple, Ono is playing with the idea of tragedy as an entertainment beyond merely presenting a tragic series of events. It’s an intriguing extra element, even if it isn’t seamlessly applied.

Ono doesn’t engage in the kind of experimental illustration that’s sprinkled throughout Small’s work, but her drawings are striking, characterized with a kind of crude fragility that supports the tone and content of her story. Like everything else about not simple, its look is deceptively… well… simple. Fans of Bryan Lee O’Malley’s Lost at Sea (Oni Press) would feel very much at ease with a cartoonish style invested with emotional depth and urgency.

People who have sampled House of Five Leaves, which is scheduled for print release in April of this year, might be surprised that not simple was drawn by the same creator. The former has a lean elegance that’s really in contrast to the more stylized look of the latter. I’m fond of both styles for their individual virtues and for the fact that they both come from the same pen. It’s exciting to see that Ono’s versatility in terms of content and tone extends to her work as an illustrator.

There’s just so much to admire about Ono’s work – its variety, its uniqueness, the level of talent it suggests. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to hope that she becomes one of those creators whose popularity transcends the audience specifically interested in comics from Japan and those who are interested in well-made comics in general. Her work seems to have transcended any specific demographic in Japan, and I believe it will here.


The Favorites Alphabet: I

Welcome to another installment of The Favorites Alphabet, where the Manga Bookshelf battle robot pick a favorite title from each letter of the alphabet. We’re trying to stick with books that have been licensed and published in English, but we recognize that the alphabet is long, so we’re keeping a little wiggle room in reserve.

“I” is for…

Ichigenme… The First Class is Civil Law | By Fumi Yoshinaga | 801 Media – There are some pretty terrific manga that begin with the letter “I,” but as a devoted fan of Fumi Yoshinaga, it’s impossible to pass up an opportunity to talk about Ichigenme, which has the distinction of being not only my favorite of Yoshinaga’s BL works, but one of my very favorite BL series of all time. In terms of my personal taste in the genre, Ichigenme has everything going for it. It’s a character-driven romance between smart, idiosyncratic adults, set in a competitive, career-minded environment that includes smart, idiosyncratic women and gay men who are actually gay. It also features quite a number of genuinely erotic, emotionally affecting sex scenes that actually move the story forward rather than getting in its way. I could go on and on about this two-volume series (and have), but instead I’ll just urge people to read it, especially those who think they don’t like BL. This is what good adult romance should look like. Melinda Beasi

I Hate You More Than Anyone! | Banri Hidaka | CMX – Yes, once again I’m picking a series that never finished in North America due to the company closing down.  But I can’t help it.  Intellectually I know this series is flawed – the early volumes have very sketchy art, the plot meanders, the emphasis on cartoon violence has disturbed some – but in the end, it doesn’t matter.  The characters in IHYMTA are hilarious, likeable, and magnificently talkative.  The series is filled with more dialogue than any other shoujo series I’ve seen, as everyone needs to give Kazuha Akiyoshi advice, or listen to her freak out about the latest crisis.  The title, of course, ceases to be true fairly quickly – it’s no spoiler that the series ends with a wedding – but that’s OK too.  This series for me is a tribute to the best and worst of Hakusensha’s Hana to Yume magazine – its high-spirited, tomboy-ish heroines, its silly love stories, and its fly-by-night plot resolution.  And Japan clearly agrees with me – the Akiyoshi family appeared in V.B. Rose as well, and Hidaka-san’s new series running today deals with their offspring.  Clearly folks cannot get enough of this family and their adventures.  (I just wish the companies would stop folding before they finish!) Sean Gaffney

Imadoki! Nowadays |Yuu Watase | Viz – All Yuu Watase manga are not created equal, but when I like one, I tend to really, really like it. That’s the case with this super-charming series about a country girl who enrolls at a snooty school in the big city. If you’re experiencing uncomfortable flashbacks to Tammy and the Bachelor, you aren’t far off. Like the titular hick played by Debbie Reynolds in that film, homespun Tanpopo upsets the elitist apple cart and falls in love with the cutest, snootiest boy in town. The difference is that Imadoki! is genuinely funny and surprising. Tanpopo is utterly sincere and completely indefatigable in her effort to make friends, and she does it on her own terms. The romance is sweet, the supporting cast is uniformly great, and there’s even an adorable pet fox to raise the cuteness level just that much higher. This book offers a fine blend of warm fuzzies and snarky chuckles. – David Welsh

InuYasha | By Rumiko Takahashi | Viz – Few manga have gone through as many English-language editions as InuYasha, which began its life as a floppy in 1997 and is now enjoying new life as a digital download. Easy as it may be to dismiss InuYasha as second-rate Takahashi, the series’ longevity is no fluke: InuYasha is Rumiko Takahashi’s most accessible story, a rollicking shônen adventure that incorporates elements of folklore, fantasy, and flat-out horror, as well as generous helpings of humor and romance. InuYasha also boasts some of Takahashi’s most appealing characters, from Sango, the tenacious demon-slayer, to Sesshomaru, whose chilling indifference to others makes him a more terrifying figure than the malicious Naraku. Great artwork and imaginatively staged combat help bring the story to life, and carry it through its more repetitive moments. – Katherine Dacey

Itazura Na Kiss | By Kaoru Tada | DMP – Because I can rest assured that my other “I” favorite, InuYasha, is in Kate’s capable hands, I can devote my pick to the shoujo classic Itazura Na Kiss, being released in deliciously chunky two-in-one volumes by Digital Manga Publishing. Some of its plot points might seem cliché—a ditzy heroine in love with a brilliant and aloof guy, circumstances that force them to live together, etc.—but then you realize that it’s Itazura that most of those other series are copying! Lamentably unfinished due to the mangaka’s untimely accidental death, the series is sheer pleasure to read, with a storytelling style and large cast of eccentrics that reminds me more of the seinen Maison Ikkoku than anything you’d find in the Shojo Beat lineup, for example. Goofy, addictive, and satisfying, I love this series and am extremely grateful to DMP for licensing it. Michelle Smith

What starts with “I” in your favorites alphabet?


Previews review November 2011

It’s kind of an odd month in the Previews catalog from Diamond. There’s a lot of great stuff, but there’s very little immediately exciting debut material. (There is a fair amount of on-the-fence content, and I could certainly use your feedback on that front.) Let’s start with a few new editions of previously published material:

Dororo Complete Edition, written and illustrated by Osamu Tezuka, Vertical, NOV11 1117: If you haven’t read this brilliant, Eisner Award winning piece of supernatural shônen, this will provide an excellent opportunity to pick up all three volumes in one shot. While it makes me sad that Tezuka ended this series early, the material he did finish is just magnificent: scary, sad, funny, bleak, gruesome… the whole package. This is one Tezuka title that I can recommend without any reservation or qualification.

Girl Genius Omnibus Vol. 1: Agatha Awakens, by Phil and Kaja Foglio, Tor Books, NOV11 1104: This web-to-print success story has been around for a while, and I’m glad to see it get some hardcover, prestige treatment. It’s about a mad scientist who learns that she’s even madder and more inventive than she suspected. Spunky, scrappy Agatha finds herself in a million different kinds of steampunk peril, and it’s great-looking, fast-paced fun.

Now, onto some less chunky but still worthy items:

A Treasury of 20th Century Murder: The Lives of Sacco and Vanzetti, written and illustrated by Rick Geary, NBM, NOV11 1052: I love these crime histories for their smart writing and great, detailed art, but I tend to wait for them to be available in paperback. It means I have to wait a bit to enjoy Geary’s take on highly controversial cases like this one, but I can be patient.

The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service Vol. 12, written by Eiji Otsuka and illustrated by Housui Yamazaki, Dark Horse, NOV11 0055: On the other hand, I can’t be any more patient with this title than the publication schedule demands, and damnation, does that schedule demand a lot of patience. Still, this is one of my very favorite Japanese comics ever, and I always get giddy at the prospect of enjoying more misadventures of a group of supernatural investigators.

We’ll wrap up with one on-the-fence item that I didn’t feel like wedging into this month’s poll:

Gentlemen’s Agreement Between a Rabbit and a Wolf, written and illustrated by Shinano Oumi, Digital Manga, NOV11 0962: As you know, I always like to investigate unknown boys’-love quantities before investing in them, so I’d appreciate any feedback either on this title or on Oumi’s work in general. This one sounds promising – a workplace romantic comedy about two guys who work for an advertising agency. The whole predator-prey framing is a little on the nose for me, but I’m certainly open to anything about grown-ups with jobs.


Re-flipped: Tokyo Zombie

It doesn’t seem right to go through all of the current Manga Moveable Feast without addressing zombies, and it doesn’t seem right to address zombies without considering ironic zombies, so here’s an old Flipped column on a title that checks both off of the list.

I think Yusaku Hanakuma’s Tokyo Zombie (Last Gasp) has helped me crystallize my objections to zombie fiction in general.  Given the limitations of the genre, it very often seems like too much effort has gone into its various renderings.  Tokyo Zombie looks like it was dashed off during study hall, and that works in its favor.

The official tag for the style is heta uma, or “bad, but good.”  I might modify it to “bad, but appropriate,” to be honest.  That Hanakuma’s style of illustration suits the material doesn’t mean it’s aesthetically pleasing in any meaningful way or that a practiced knowledge of the fundaments of drawing seems to be peeking out through a conscious effort at crudeness.  Proportions are odd and shifting, and body language and composition are stiff.  To be honest, the living and the undead aren’t always immediately distinguishable from one another.

But really, the best a zombie story can be is crude, quick, and maybe a little subversive, and Tokyo Zombie is all of those.  The action begins on “Dark Fuji,” a mountain of garbage, studded with illegally dumped toxic waste and human remains.  Whatever the opposite of a primordial soup is reaches boiling point, and the undead begin shambling down from Dark Fuji to do what zombies do – very slowly overtake the living.

A small subculture of survivors build an enclosed area where the rich live on the labor of an oppressed class of slaves, and the balance is maintained by brutal enforcers.  Stripped of most of their comforts and diversions, the rich become extremely bored, and a brutal arena featuring slaves versus zombies springs up.  There isn’t much in the way of subtlety in the way Hanakuma portrays the class conflicts of post-zombie society, but there doesn’t need to be.  It’s just a backdrop for gross-out violence and a source of jokes about brutal things happening to generally terrible people.

Hanakuma’s greatest strength is probably pacing.  He rarely lets a sequence drag on longer than necessary, and he keeps the inventively gross gags coming.  If they’re imperfectly rendered, how much artistry does flesh-eating really require?  There’s plenty of gory event if not detail, and what would lovingly drawn innards really add to what seems intended to be a brisk, coarse outing?

(P.S. Tokyo Zombie was originally serialized in the alternative manga anthology, Ax.  In August of 2009, Top Shelf will publish a 400-page collection of stories from the decade-old magazine.  Kai-Ming Cha has an interview with the translated collection’s co-editor, Sean Michael Wilson, at Publishers Weekly.)

(P.P.S.  Last Gasp is also the publisher of one of the finest comics I’ve ever read, Fumiyo Kouno’s Town of Evening Calm, Country of Cherry Blossoms.  Aside from its publisher and creator’s nation of origin, it has absolutely nothing to do with Tokyo Zombie, but I like to mention it whenever I can, no matter how feeble the pretext.)


The Favorites Alphabet: spooky supplement

We interrupt your regularly scheduled, letter-by-letter installment of The Favorites Alphabet in honor of the horror-tinged Manga Moveable Feast! This week, the Manga Bookshelf Battle Robot retreated to the dank catacombs of our secret base to conjure the spirits of our favorite spooky manga! Read on… if you dare!

 “The Enigma of Amigara Fault” | By Junji Ito | VIZ Media – I haven’t read much horror manga. In fact, aside from the delightfully bizarre Tokyo Zombie and one volume (so far) of The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service, my experience is limited to the works of Junji Ito. While Gyo and Uzumaki certainly deliver weird and disturbing tales, it’s “The Enigma of Amigara Fault,” a short story that appeared in Gyo’s second volume, that I find most memorable.  In it, an earthquake has revealed a rock formation riddled with human-shaped holes that go farther back into the rock than researchers are able to measure. People flock to the site, drawn to holes that seem to be custom-made for them. Those who enter the holes are committed to moving forward with some profoundly jibbly-inducing results. Just thinking about it is kind of giving me a wiggins. Look for images from this one in this weekend’s Let’s Get Visual column! – Michelle Smith

The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service | By Eiji Ōtsuka and Housui Yamazaki | Dark Horse – Despite my ongoing reviews of Higurashi: When They Cry, I’m not really a big reader of horror manga, tending to find it too scary. Which says more about me than about the genre. However, I picked up Volume 1 of Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service for its unusual cover, as well as the fact that it was translated and edited by Carl Horn. Imagine my surprise when I got one of the funniest, most satiric, and, yes, scariest manga coming out here. For our heroes, dealing with corpses isn’t like searching for mysteries a la Scooby Doo – it’s a job, and they are usually trying desperately to get paid. It just so happens that their various skills go really well with solving problems involving dead bodies. Nestled in among the sarcastic dialogue and long pointed looks at Japanese politics and society is some really creepy imagery – watch out for the chapter with the birds, or the one with the ears. – Sean Gaffney

Parasyte | By Hitoshi Iwaaki | Del Rey – There are just so many reasons this eight-volume series is awesome, not least of which is Iwaaki’s facility with really gruesome and surprising bits of violence. It’s an invasive-species nightmare scenario featuring bizarre space spores taking over indigenous creatures (mostly human) and turning them into ravenous, shape-shifting, and dangerously intelligent predators. Fortunately, one of the parasites doesn’t quite make it to its host’s brain, turning average teen Shinichi Izumi into humanity’s best protector, and his right hand into a formidable defensive weapon, not to mention an adorable and insightful pet! Iwaaki jumbles a lot of elements together – coming-of-age drama, violent suspense, evolutionary theory, family tragedy, and boy-and-his-dog sentiment. The beauty part is that Iwaaki jumbles it all well, making for one of the most beginning-to-end satisfying tales you’re likely to find on the manga shelves. Originally published by Tokyopop, Del Rey picked up this out-of-print gem and did a bang-up job repackaging it. – David Welsh

School Zone | By Kanako Inuki | Dark Horse – In this odd, hallucinatory, and sometimes very funny series, a group of students summon the ghosts of people who died on school grounds, unleashing the spirits’ wrath on their unsuspecting classmates. School Zone is as much a meditation on childhood fears of being ridiculed or ostracized as it is a traditional ghost story; time and again, the students’ own response to the ghosts is often more horrific than the ghosts’ behavior. Inuki’s artwork isn’t as gory or imaginative as some of her peers’, though she demonstrates a genuine flair for comically gruesome thrills: one girl is dragged into a toilet, for example, while another is attacked by a scaly, long-armed creature that lives in the infirmary. Where Inuki really shines, however, is in her ability to capture the primal terror that a dark, empty building can inspire in the most rational person. Even when the story takes one its many silly detours — and yes, there are many WTF?! moments in School Zone — Inuki makes us feel her characters’ vulnerability as they explore the school grounds after hours. – Katherine Dacey

Tokyo Babylon | By CLAMP | TOKYOPOP – When David suggested that we all pick favorite horror manga for this week, at first I thought I didn’t have any. Though horror movies were a favorite genre once upon a time, that preference never really transferred to print for me, or at least I didn’t think it had. Then I realized that some of my most beloved occult-themed comics fall closer to the horror mark than I thought. My favorite of these (and indeed, one of my favorite comics of all time) is CLAMP’s 20-year-old series, Tokyo Babylon.  Complete in just seven volumes, it’s a decidedly immature work, featuring uneven storytelling, outrageous outfits, and one of the strangest, most over-the-top examples of BL-leaning shôjo I’ve seen to date. On the other hand, not only does it finally rip our hearts out with the precision of a serial killer, but it scares the bejeezus out of us all along the way. This is a dark, cruel little series, that takes real joy in its emotional shock value, and its occult setting provides ample opportunity for that quality. Not that I’m complaining. When I look at the images I chose for my review of the series , I can see that I picked out several of those that had creeped me out the most. For genuine scares and emotional brutality all wrapped up in one delicious “classic” shôjo package, you can’t beat Tokyo Babylon– Melinda Beasi

What are your favorite horror stories?


Re-flipped: GoGo Monster

Okay, I don’t know if this comic counts as horror in the strictest sense of the term, but it’s one of the first titles that came to mind when I considered this month’s Manga Moveable Feast. It’s one of my favorite spooky-ish comics, and yesterday was Taiyo Matsumoto’s birthday, so…

“Yeah, well…” a grade-schooler opines early in Taiyo Matsumoto’s GoGo Monster (Viz), “There’s a kid like that in every class, right?” He’s talking about Yuki, a classmate who claims to sense things no one else can, an invisible population of mischievous creatures and a new insurgence of more malevolent beings. And the classmate is right; if manga is to be believed, the schools of Japan are well stocked with young people who traffic in the eerie. None of them are quite like Yuki, though, probably because not many creators are quite like Matsumoto.

Matsumoto has an extraordinary talent for rendering kid logic, their concepts of loyalty and justice and the way they engage with the world around them. This knack was on vivid display in Tekkonkinkreet: Black and White (Viz), for which Matsumoto won an Eisner Award in 2008. Like that book, GoGo Monster features two temperamentally different boys cleaving together to face the inevitable.

Many supernaturally sensitive manga characters can be divided into two categories. They either use that sensitivity to protect the unaware, or they struggle to conceal their abilities for fear of ostracism. Some are driven by both motives, but Yuki answers to neither. He’s disconcertingly matter-of-fact about the things he perceives, and he’s genuinely immune to the ridicule of his peers. He’s an excellent student, but he’s a disruptive presence. Yuki doesn’t perceive his own abnormality, and he doesn’t feel any pressure to conform.

While Yuki has few allies in the student body or faculty, he does garner the sympathetic attention of a new kid at school, Makoto. Average in every respect, Makoto is less intrigued by Yuki’s beliefs than by his indifference to ridicule. Maybe he recognizes it as a kind of strength of character, or maybe some emerging empathy makes him realize Yuki is at risk. Makoto is engaged in all of the aspects of Yuki’s character, not just his oddity. Instead of limiting him to the role of sidekick, this engagement actually makes Makoto Yuki’s equal in terms of reader engagement, or at least it did with me.

Other benevolent figures in Yuki’s sphere include the school’s elderly groundskeeper, Ganz, who understandably takes the long view of things. While the teachers yearn to fix Yuki, Ganz is content to listen to the boy. Then there’s IQ, who is even more ostentatiously weird than Yuki. IQ, who’s in an older grade than Yuki and Makoto, wanders the school grounds with a box on his head with a single eyehole cut into it. It’s telling and slyly funny that this is less disconcerting to his peers and teachers than Yuki’s less obvious strangeness and bursts of temper. Like Ganz, IQ has an odd kind of faith in Yuki, though the source of that faith is oblique.

The most interesting thing about GoGo Monster, the thing that grounds it, is that it’s ultimately irrelevant whether or not the things Yuki perceives are real. It’s Yuki’s belief in their reality and the possible consequences of that belief that drive the drama. That belief is never in question; Yuki is absolutely sincere, as is Matsumoto.

Tekkonkinkreet was set in a dying fantastical city slowly being destroyed by crassness and consumerism. Treasure Town was a richly imagined, almost living place. In GoGo Monster, the school setting couldn’t be more prosaic, but it’s no less vivid. Matsumoto captures the rhythms of the place, the mundane snippets of conversation, the casual cruelty, and the bustle. Even without the meticulous visual detail Matsumoto lavishes on the place, you can practically smell the food from the cafeteria.

That fidelity makes it all the more effective when you start to see glimpses of it through Yuki’s enhanced perspective. Matsumoto is positively restrained in introducing the weirdness that Yuki sees infesting Asahi Elementary. You glimpse it from the corner of your eye at first, or blink and it disappears. The clearest sense of them comes from Yuki’s crude drawings, and even he admits that they aren’t literal renderings. “This is just a conceptual sketch,” he tells the closest thing he has to a friend. As the school year that constitutes the book’s timeline progresses, Matsumoto reveals more of what Yuki is sensing.

Beyond his marvelous illustrations and elliptical storytelling, the fascinating thing about Matsumoto’s work is his ability to make me root for undesirable outcomes. In Tekkonkinkreet, I found myself hoping that its protagonists would accept the futility of their fight for Treasure Town, that they would cut their losses. In GoGo Monster, I found myself siding with the forces of conformity. Admirable as Yuki’s sense of self is, and enviable as his immunity to social pressure may be, I still was persuaded by Matsumoto’s argument for a healthy, happy Yuki, even if it resulted in a less interesting, less special Yuki.

I should probably mention that GoGo Monster is a beautifully produced book. It’s magnificently colored hard cover comes sheathed in an equally handsome slipcase. The edges of the crisp, white pages are tinged red with a continuation of the cover image. It’s all very lovely, but the book would still be extraordinary even without those bells and whistles. Matsumoto has craft, intelligence, and heart, and he balances those qualities as well as almost any creator alive. In a fairly extraordinary year for challenging, artistically satisfying manga, it seems like a certainty that Matsumoto will garner a second Eisner nomination, perhaps even a second win.

Re-flipped: Kazuo Umezu

For this week’s blood-soaked Manga Moveable Feast, I thought I’d revisit some old Flipped columns that have a horrific bent.

With so many aspects of the manga industry apparently in question, there is one thing I can say without too much fear of contradiction:  it’s a good time to be a fan of horror comics from Japan.

CMX is offering the creepy-cute moralizing of Kanako Inuki’s Presents.  Dark Horse is serving fans of Shaun of the Dead-style self-aware chills with The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service, written by Eiji Otsuka and drawn by Housui Yamazaki.  Old-school angst and energetically rendered savagery take center stage in Hitoshi Iwaaki’s Parasyte from Del Rey.  In spite of some moments of uncertainty along the way, Tokyopop did a great public service by finishing the apocalyptic ten-volume run of Mochizuki Minetaro’s Dragon Head. Viz Media released new editions of Junji Ito’s Uzumaki and Gyo in its Signature imprint.

What really makes this a mini-golden age for horror devotees, and the Signature line a relative horn of plenty for such readers, is the quantity of Kazuo Umezu manga on offer.   Umezu’s tykes-in-trouble classic, The Drifting Classroom, recently wrapped up an 11-volume run, and Viz just released Cat Eyed Boy in two fat, prestige volumes.

The Drifting Classroom begins with an elementary school blowing sky high.  The community is devastated by the apparent deaths of hundreds of students and their teachers, not realizing that the victims should have been so lucky.  Instead of a quick and relatively merciful end, the school has been cast into a hellish, post-apocalyptic landscape filled with mysterious perils.  The grown-ups are less than useful, giving in to panic and madness.  Umezu dispatches them with ruthless efficiency, placing the focus on the kids and their attempts to survive external and internal threats.

I’ve rarely seen a comic with as much insanity per page.  Umezu’s pace is relentless as he tosses the dwindling student body from frying pan to fire and back again.  It’s like a child’s worst nightmares woven into one and infused with adrenaline.  Grown-ups are useless, and peers are even more pernicious than they suspected.

The brutality never becomes wearying, because Umezu has seemingly boundless imagination in finding new ways to render horrible things happening to children.  Some moments have slowly mounting terror, like a panicked stampede of kids charging at a handful of out-of-their-depth faculty.  Others pop out of nowhere with the kind of jarring effect that slasher film-makers only wish they could muster.

It’s incidental, but the series provides additional pleasure when you remind yourself that The Drifting Classroom was originally created for children, originally serialized in Shogakukan’s Shônen Sunday.  One shudders to think what Fredric Wertham would have made of manga.

After the hyperactive terror of The Drifting Classroom, Umezu’s Cat Eyed Boy seems almost serene.  Like a lot of horror manga, it’s episodic in its construction, following a half-demon protagonist as he’s drawn to scenes of horrible things happening to terrible people.

Actually, “protagonist” might be the wrong term.  Cat Eyed Boy has no vested interest in the misfortunes he witnesses.  Sometimes, he’s just an observer.  He can demonstrate a penchant for taunting humans, playing on their superstitions.  If he sometimes finds himself opposed to malevolent forces, it’s generally a matter of self-preservation.  He’s not admirable by any means, but he’s understandable.  If Cat Eyed Boy’s odd existence has taught him anything, it’s that people generally suck.

This is most clearly demonstrated in what might be described as his origin story, “The Tsunami Summoners.”  Rejected by both the human and demon sides of his family, Cat Eyed Boy is taken in by a lonely spinster in a seaside village.  The community doesn’t share his foster mother’s benevolence, and his childhood is characterized by alienation and hostility.  The Cat Eyed Boy becomes the scapegoat for the town’s misfortunes, blinding them to more insidious threats on the horizon.

“The Tsunami Summoners” is a wonderfully twisted morality play, easily my favorite entry in the first volume.  It delivers Umezu’s visual imagination, inventive plotting, and ambiguous morality.  The title character could easily be one of those prolific and slightly sickening types – hideous on the outside, but with a pure and childlike heart.  Umezu’s approach is much more interesting; the Cat Eyed Boy owns both his human and demonic heritage.  He can be hurt by human cruelty and fear, but the impish part of his nature earns at least a portion of it.

His foster mother, Mimi, is equally ambiguous to me.  She’s driven by loneliness as opposed to any specific affection for the Cat Eyed Boy; Mimi wants a child, any child.  Even the villagers aren’t entirely unreasonable in their fears; they come out on the wrong end of the moral equation, obviously, but the sliver of sympathy you feel for their fears adds extra spice to the story’s outcome.

If the Cat Eyed Boy is a bit on the adorable side, like a plush toy, Umezu doesn’t stint on disturbing character design.  “The Band of One Hundred Monsters” is a parade of the grotesque.  And ultimately, it’s the internal deformities, that are most disturbing – anger, jealousy, sadism, greed.  Umezu’s mastery comes from his ability to render both.


The Favorites Alphabet: H

Welcome to the Favorites Alphabet, where the Manga Bookshelf battle robot gaze upon our respective manga collections to pick a favorite title from each letter of the alphabet. We’re trying to stick with books that have been licensed and published in English, but we recognize that the alphabet is long, so we’re keeping a little wiggle room in reserve.

“H” is for…

Here Is Greenwood | Yukie Nasu | Viz Media – Again, I could pick any number of ‘H’ titles – Hayate the Combat Butler, High School Girls, Higurashi – but I have a soft spot in my heart for Greenwood, which was first seen in North America in the mid-1990s as an anime. Viz brought over the 9 volume manga in 2004, and to be honest it did not sell well. This is a shame, as it’s part of that classic genre of shôjo manga – BL tease. There are many people (including myself) who may read Greenwood for Hasukawa, and seeing him struggle with his temper and with the hijinks that surround him at the Greenwood dorms. Seeing him eventually win the heart of the girl he’s trying to win is a highlight of the entire run. But if I were honest, I’d admit that 98% of all Greenwood fans read it to see Mitsuru and Shinobu not be lovers at each other. The two best friends complement each other perfectly, and even the Japanese audience demanded, at the end, that Nasu show the two of them kissing. (She did not comply.) This may not have sold well here, but those female fans who had the anime be one of their gateways into BL fandom should try the manga – it’s better, and gives them even more ammo. – Sean Gaffney

High School Debut | Kazune Kawahara | VIZ Media – On the surface, this is just another shôjo high school romance. There’s the earnest heroine, Haruna, who’s got a tremendous heart and athletic ability, and the more stoic boy, Yoh, whom she taps to be her dating coach. What’s different is that they fall in love within the first few volumes and spend the rest of the time working out what it means to be a couple. I love that Yoh admires Haruna for all of her terrific qualities, and I love that Haruna trusts Yoh and truly wants what’s best for him. Although the story itself may not be new, I adore the characters so much that when the final volume came around, I was tempted to write a review consisting entirely of hearts and sniffles. I’ve loaned this series out a couple of times already and know that I will be rereading it often. – Michelle Smith

Hikaru no Go | By Yumi Hotta and Takeshi Obata | Viz Media – Oh, what to say about Hikaru no Go that I haven’t already said? Hikaru no Go was my first exposure to manga, and managed in one two-day whirlwind read to win me over to a medium (comics) I had previously sworn I could never, ever love. In a very real way, Manga Bookshelf exists because of Hikaru no Go. It is an epic, deeply compelling, emotionally resonant sort-of-sports manga, with some of my favorite artwork in in the medium overall. And though I later realized that the sense of non-ironic optimism that (in part) drew me to the series originally is a trait common to the genre, there is something unique about this quality as it inhabits Hikaru no Go.  It is elegant in its innocence, and in its sadness too. And though I’ve read many more moving and complex manga since, nothing can ever replace Hikago in my heart. It is that special. – Melinda Beasi

Hotel Harbour View | By Jiro Taniguchi | Viz Media – This slim volume explores terrain familiar to anyone who’s watched Double Indemnity, The Big Sleep, or Stray Dog: it’s a world of gangsters, molls, and taciturn killers. Though the stories unfold in present-day Shanghai and Paris (or what was the present day when Taniguchi wrote it), the mood is decidedly retro: the characters speak in a highly self-conscious, stylized language borrowed from the silver screen; they wear hats, waist-cinching dresses, and formidable shoulder pads; and they die dramatic deaths. If the prevailing sensibility is mid-century noir, the artwork owes a debt to John Woo and the Hong Kong action films of the late 1980s and early 1990s, with balletic gun fights and artfully composed kill shots. Much as I love titles like Zoo in Winter and A Distant Neighborhood, Hotel Harbour View may be my favorite Taniguchi title. – Katherine Dacey

House of Five Leaves | By Natsume Ono | Viz Media – It frankly seems wrong that we’ve gone this far in The Favorites Alphabet without me having a chance to mention Ono’s work, but it’s nice that I can start with what I think is her very best licensed series. This tale of an out-of-work samurai who falls in with a motley gang of generally benevolent kidnappers falls right in my tonal sweet spot – casual, character driven, but packed with surprising and potent emotional highlights that seem to creep up on the reader. The look of the series is essential to its success, and it’s easily Ono’s most stylish, gorgeous work. There’s a wonderfully concise quality to her illustrations here. She manages to convey a great deal with the tiniest modulations in facial expression, framed as they are by her languid, graceful staging. House of Five Leaves represents everything I like about Ono’s work, and it features those qualities at their very best. – David Welsh

What starts with “H” in your favorites alphabet?

The Favorites Alphabet: G

Welcome to the Favorites Alphabet, where the Manga Bookshelf battle robot gaze upon our respective manga collections to pick a favorite title (or “titles,” if we really can’t pick just one) from each letter of the alphabet. We’re trying to stick with books that have been licensed and published in English, but we recognize that the alphabet is long, so we’re keeping a little wiggle room in reserve.

“G” is for…

GALS! | Mihona Fujii | CMX – At first glance, this tale of the loves of three “ko-gals” in the streets of downtown Shibuya may seem like nothing but a frothy yet shallow examination of clothes, guys and the longest legs you’ve seen this side of Revolutionary Girl Utena. But if you look deeper, you find a fantastic look at the head of a teenage girl determined to have as much fun as she can in her high school years without making sacrifices to her reputation or cutting corners. Ran Kotobuki is the child of a long line of police officers, and even though she insists she won’t follow in their footsteps, her sense of justice drives her to ensure that Shibuya is a safe haven. Ran’s enthusiasm is infectious, even if it’s often over the top, and the series is a fantastic one for young girls who want to live life to the fullest while still searching for a purpose in that life. (No surprises, Ran ends the series deciding to be a police officer.) – Sean Gaffney

Gatcha Gacha | Yutaka Tachibana | TOKYOPOP – I fell in love with this title from the moment it came out, mostly thanks to the interplay between its four leads. Supposedly a simple shôjo story of a girl who always tends to fall for bad boys and her unlikely friendship with a strong yet damaged classmate, Gatcha Gacha ends up being anything but simple, as you struggle to figure out which lies Motoko is telling are pure fiction and which are merely the truth; who’s still in love with whom; and of course whose attempted relationship will be the most twisted and horrible. Those hoping for typical shôjo romance will likely find this wanting, but for addictive crack with a kudzu plot, kickass heroines, and some great, snappy dialogue, it can’t be beat. – Sean Gaffney

Genshiken | By Kio Shimoku |  Del Rey – The beauty of Genshiken is that the protagonists – a group of college-aged otaku who are members of possibly the least active club in all of manga – are neither repulsive nor saintly. It isn’t about the triumph of the underdog, and it isn’t about the ridicule of the socially maladroit. It’s about people finding their niche and living their lives on a very believable scale. It’s still funny, because Shimoku is honest enough to recognize that his cast’s individual obsessions can reach ridiculous levels. But that’s what otaku are about, and Shimoku doesn’t need to push anything to the point of being grotesque. He gives the reader permission to both like his characters and snicker at their weirder extremes, but the sum effect is fondness. The series also has one of the most restrained renderings of perverse, unlikely, perhaps partially requited love between two people who are simply not meant to be together that I’ve ever seen. And I have no resistance to that. – David Welsh

GoGo Monster | Taiyo Matsumoto | VIZ Media – Every elementary school has a kid like Yuki, a smart, odd student who says things that unsettle classmates and teachers alike. In Yuki’s case, it’s the matter-of-fact way he reports seeing monsters that leads to his social isolation. Newcomer Makoto doesn’t share Yuki’s vision, but he admires Yuki’s nonchalant attitude, and struggles mightily to understand what makes his friend tick. It’s to Taiyo Matsumoto’s credit that we’re never entirely sure what aspects of the story are intended to be real, and which ones might be unfolding in the characters’ heads; Yuki’s monsters remain largely unseen, though their presence is felt throughout the story. Matsumoto’s stark, primitive style suits the material perfectly, inoculating Gogo Monster against the sentimentality that imaginary friends and childhood fears inspire in so many authors. – Katherine Dacey

Gon | Masashi Tanaka | CMX, Kodansha – Ken Haley, my former PopCultureShock colleague, once likened Gon to Dennis the Menace, and I think the comparison is apt. Look past Gon’s teeth and claws, and you’ll see a pint-sized terror who, like Hank Ketcham’s famous creation, loves disrupting the natural order. Of course, Gon’s mischief is of a very different sort than Dennis’, as it involves swimming with sharks, stealing honey from a hive, and eating psychedelic mushrooms (to name just a few of Gon’s wordless exploits). No matter: the results are just as predictable, ruffling feathers (literally) and causing destruction. Masashi Tanaka’s intricate pen-and-ink illustrations make this far-fetched conceit work, infusing the stories with humor and pathos in equal measure. – Katherine Dacey

Goong: The Royal Palace | By Park SoHee | Yen Press – Though there are many fine manga beginning with the letter “G,” here my heart belongs completely to the Korean manhwa, Goong. Set in an alternate version of modern-day Korea with a monarchy still in place, Goong is a teen soap opera to die for, filled with compelling characters, emotionally-charged banter, royal politics, and pretty, pretty costumes. More than all of this, however, and despite a boatload of political machinations and misunderstandings, it features a romantic couple that is truly hindered by nothing more than themselves, and this is my very favorite kind of romance. It’s deliciously complicated, surprisingly funny, and really, truly addictive. I absolutely adore Goong. – Melinda Beasi

Goong: The Royal Palace | By Park SoHee | Yen Press – It’s something of a common theme in sunjeong manhwa to depict a romance between a spunky, common girl and an aloof, rich jerk. The jerk will, of course, be surprised that the girl dares to criticize him, but eventually come to realize that she understands him better than anyone else.  I’ve read that story in various permutations several times now, but it’s at its most compelling in the pages of Goong, in which a regular girl named Chae-Kyung learns that she is engaged to the crown prince of Korea thanks to a pact made between their grandfathers. Neither is happy about the situation at first, and there is lots of bickering, but there are also moments of true connection between them that show their promise as a couple. Throw in some rivals, some political intrigue, and some truly unfortunate comic relief in the form of a pervy eunuch, and you’ve got the ingredients for major soapy goodness!  Bonus points to Yen Press for switching to a two-in-one omnibus format for the series. – Michelle Smith

What starts with “G” in your favorites alphabet?


The Favorites Alphabet: F

Welcome to the Favorites Alphabet, where the Manga Bookshelf battle robot gaze upon our respective manga collections to pick a favorite title from each letter of the alphabet, whenever possible and ever fearful of the mournful bitterness of the runners up. We’re trying to stick with books that have been licensed and published in English, but we recognize that the alphabet is long, so we’re keeping a little wiggle room in reserve.

“F” is for…

Firefighter! Daigo of Company M | By Masahito Soda | Viz – On one level, Firefighter! is meat-and-potatoes shônen: it’s got a young, brash lead who wants to be the best at what he does; a rival who excels at pushing the hero’s buttons; and a sexy big sister character whom the hero adores. On another level, however, Firefighter! is a classic procedural, showing us how firemen practice their trade, interact at the house, and respond to conditions at every fire. The series definitely cants more towards shonen tournament manga than procedural; as Jason Thompson observed in Manga: The Complete Guide, Daigo’s company fights more dangerous fires in a week than most firemen will see in an entire career. Still, the series’ brisk pacing and sense of dramatic urgency make it one of the most entertaining titles in VIZ’s vast shônen library, even when the story strains credulity. -Katherine Dacey

Flower of Life | By Fumi Yoshinaga | Digital Manga Publishing – Although it works perfectly well as the amusing story of a forthright (perhaps overly so) teen named Harutaro who has just returned to school after a bout with leukemia, Flower of Life also offers many subtle meditations and musings on the nature of friendship. Seamlessly woven into stories in which a memorable cast of characters enlivens even the most tired manga clichés (school cultural festival, anyone?), these themes imbue the work with insight and depth, just as one would expect from Fumi Yoshinaga. On top of all this goodness, you’ve got Harutaro’s personal journey, where he discovers both an abiding love for manga and the ability to lie. This extraordinary series is not one to be missed. – Michelle Smith

Fruits Basket | By Natsuki Takaya | Tokyopop – This was a tough letter, especially with Fullmetal Alchemist just sitting there, but once again I went with the obvious pick.  Fruits Basket was something I discussed with my friends constantly while it was still coming out, and remains a beloved favorite.  Tohru’s struggles – first to try to bond with the Sohmas, then to try to break their curse, then to resolve her feelings towards Kyo, all wrapped up in a surprisingly deep cover of guilt and self-hatred – are fascinating to watch, and it helps that the side characters are just as fascinating if not more so.  And so much of Fruits Basket is about forgiveness – something the readers sometimes had a lot more trouble with than the characters, especially when it came to Akito.  But in the end, as a manly male who will also happily read First President of Japan and other manly titles, Fruits Basket is my pick as it’s made me cry more than any other manga. – Sean Gaffney

Fullmetal Alchemist | By Hiromu Arakawa | VIZ – Though I’ve often credited Hikaru no Go with getting me into manga, it was Fullmetal Alchemist that guaranteed I’d stay.  With its deeply relatable characters, impressively tight plot, and clean, well-paced storytelling, Fullmetal Alchemist proved to me that my new love for the medium was much more than a fling. Alternately heartbreaking and jubilant without ever feeling strained, Fullmetal Alchemist is a deceptively smooth read, even in its most emotionally and visually-packed moments. I often feel like a broken record when I sing this series’ praises. But the truth is, I just never stop being wowed by Arakawa’s discipline and skill. She makes epic look easy. – Melinda Beasi

Future Lovers | By Saika Kunieda | Deux Press – All of the letters in this alphabet have posed a certain degree of difficulty, but “F” is a positive bloodbath. After serious consideration, I’ve decided to go with the fact that this two-volume series offers something very unique: it’s the gayest yaoi I’ve ever read. In a lot of comics in this category, you’re as likely to encounter issues of sexual orientation as you are concepts of particle physics, so some recognizable context is always welcome. In the case of Future Lovers, that context is layered over a wonderful, messy, evolving romance between two very likable, believable characters. Beyond the tricky issue of their feelings for each other, stalwart Kento and cynical Akira deal with the way their relationship will fall out at work (they teach at the same school) and with their families (particularly Kento’s traditional – but very funny – grandparents). It’s real-world romance, and it just plain works on every level. – David Welsh

What starts with “F” in your Favorites Alphabet?